Bright Lights Film Journal

Lost – On the Wave

This is apropos the DVD release of Lost Season 6:

A lot of people were disappointed with the series finale of Lost, disappointed to the point they felt it betrayed everything they loved about the show. Big, crucial, origin-of-the-world mysteries we had been wondering about for six years went unsolved. A whole separate universe introduced in the final season turned out to be a ruse before collapsing in a heap of fake mystical cumbaya. Worse, the answers we did get were way lame, involving as they did ancient backgammon pieces and artesian springs. Oh, and light, lots of light.

But I loved it. I loved the hokey alterna-purgatory, and I especially loved the different scenes where characters touch and all their memories come flooding back because of some ridiculous conflation of quantum physics and the healing power of love. Most of all, I loved Sawyer and Juliet’s meet-cute over a candy bar, which brought a tear to my jaded eye.

But that in turn made me wonder: am I a sucker? Shouldn’t art, or whatever TV is, at least make sense? Who’s going to stand up for the principles of motivated action and the Aristotelian unities of time and space?

These thoughts worried me until recently, when I re-read Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The play has generally been considered a mess. Like on a TV series, Shakespeare is presumed to have had co-writers. Its plot is as creaky and coincidence-driven as anything on Lost. There are storms and shipwrecks, riddles and symbolic jousts. At a crucial moment a cask containing a dead princess gets tossed overboard in a storm, except she isn’t really dead, she only looks it, and the cask washes up on shore right next to a kindly necromancer who happens to have an Egyptian potion on hand for waking her up. An assassination, occasioned by its intended victim’s excess beauty, gets derailed by the sublime stage direction, Enter Pirates. The pirates then drop her off at a brothel, which she goes on to ruin with the power of her chastity.

Alone among Shakespeare’s late romances, Pericles is based on a source text from ancient Greece – not a play from its golden age, but one of the short, sloppy novels from the long centuries of its decline. This means two things: that the play has plenty of incest, and that it is structured around the voyage between and among islands. Its narrative is archipelagic; it depends on the distances between Rhodes and Lesbos and Cyrenaica and the confusion that can seep into those spaces. And in the end, all its contrivance resolves into a few simple things. Above all, to a recognition scene between the heartbroken old king and the daughter he thought was long dead.

This is ancient stuff, ancient even when Shakespeare’s Hellenistic sources were scribbling it down, going right back to Odysseus washing up on Ithaca beach and being licked by his faithful hound. And in the end, this, for me, is what Lost was all about – an incredibly elaborate, prolonged machinery jerry-rigged to deliver a few moments of grace. Which is to say, that if it takes alternate universes and multiple timelines to bring these incredibly old tropes back to life, so be it. Instead of nit-picking Lost‘s litany of absurdities and inconsistencies, I’d rather salute it for bringing the antique sea into the modern world – the random, interventionist ocean of myth, which is as likely to scatter your crew to the four winds as it is to bring your loved ones back to you on the top of a wave.